Working to make venues more sustainable

September 8, 2020

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As we enter September, a silver lining to a much quieter start of season is the opportunity to focus on long-term strategic thinking and planning. We know this time of year usually sees many of our clients preparing for a string of evening and weekend events for donors and audiences, but we already know that 2020 is not a typical year. And while we don’t know how long our current situation will last, at Theatre Projects we’re cautioning our clients not to make expensive or permanent choices in haste. Now is not the time to remove 80% of your venue seats or replace HVAC systems to rush audiences back into your venues. We all yearn to gather, and we want to welcome audiences back inside when it is safe to do so, but any short-term changes made now should be quick, inexpensive, and reversible.

Now is the time to look at designing change for the better within your organizations by focusing on adjustments to your strategic vision and goals, operational structure, and revenue and expense models. By taking this moment to think and plan how we can make our venues more accessible, inclusive, and sustainable we‘ll be better able to serve our communities in the long term.

Revenue models

As arts leaders, we understand your challenges and have been encouraging our clients to take this time to look at current and future revenue models. We challenge you to think outside the box what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to. We’ve gotten too comfortable relying on revenue models that are deeply rooted in presenting shows and selling tickets and we need to find new ways to generate revenue.

Ticket revenue—Selling the experience

We understand it’s hard to imagine how to make it economically feasible to present a show at 25% capacity. But the bigger question is, can you afford to NOT present that show? Unless your model is to pay for the entire cost of the show through ticket sales alone, could this be an opportunity to explore how to keep your stakeholders and supporters active, engaged, and connected to your organization through innovation and creativity? In taking this moment to review organizational revenue streams more holistically, be aware that you can’t afford to seem inactive and irrelevant—you stand to lose donors, community goodwill, grants, and other funding in the absence of programming.

At our core we don’t want to think of programming as a marketing tool, but we must adapt. Discovering how programming can increase levels of engagement in a new setting is a first step. When you are no longer worrying about opening your doors to the “must attend performance of the season” and selling tickets to your shows, you need to find a way create the next experience in new and unique settings. We recommend focusing on how to sell an experience that reminds those supporters why they’re connected to us in the first place. We challenge you to be innovative in creating these new settings – from drive-in stages to “tiny venues” on wheels, each community can find their own best fit.

Technology & experience

Look at the technology around you and discover how easily those resources can be utilized to create a quality experience “outside” of your four walls. Remember, the performing arts is about experience, so what can we do to grow and foster an experiential model, both remotely and within new, yet safe, gathering spaces?

For those in climate regions that can support outdoor programming, try to re-imagine how to bring the “inside experience outside” over the coming months. Parking lots, plazas, and even gardens can become new gathering place for simulcasts of your indoor performance experience. This allows for multiple audiences and revenue streams in addition to on-demand streaming services.

Sponsorship opportunities

By leveraging technology and pairing it with a new avenue for sponsorships and advertising, you can also engage audiences in a new, yet familiar and cherished experience that‘s connected to a revenue stream. Local companies are very aware of the need to support community arts and culture organizations at this time and may be willing to provide financial support in return for simple logo placements as part of new sponsorship opportunities.

For smaller to mid-size venues, technology can open your programming to a wider audience, one that has data to support viewership and demographics that are enticing to advertisers. This, in turn, supports a new revenue model that previously may have had capacity limitations. 

Create change

Creativity and willingness to look at new revenue models also means re-imagining how to best use venues and programming today. Can you create change to help reach underserved communities who need the arts the most right now? How can you work to build up your community by strengthening its cultural identity? This may mean offering programs, new experiences, and community access outside of your comfort zone but if the end result allows you to create a sustainable model and strengthened community, then isn’t that the right reason to do it?

The core mission as arts leaders has become “just” staying in business, which for the immediate future means less face to face experiences, transitioning to presenting virtually, remotely, or in more non-traditional spaces, and re-imagining how you can use revenue-generating spaces and programs. By planning for the future in a different way, these opportunities will help to support the successes of your future.

Working to make venues more sustainable
Credit: Courtesy of Bravo! Vail Music Festival